Editor’s Note – The Air Force retired the F-117 from active service, but pilots from the Air Force Test Center still fly them for limited research activities.
The F-117 Nighthawk was a twin-engine stealth attack aircraft designed to exploit low-observable stealth technology. The design was a tectonic shift in combat aircraft design, combining a minuscule radar signature with the ability to deploy laser-guided precision weapons. The F-117 could enter heavily defended enemy airspace undetected and accurately strike high-threat targets.
The aircraft changed the tactical conversation from “How many aircraft do we need to take out a target?” to “How many targets can we take out with a single aircraft?”
Design and Development
Development of the F-117 began in 1975 out of the need to combat Soviet surface-to-air missile technology responsible for downing heavy bomber aircraft during the Vietnam War.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency contracted Lockheed’s Skunk Works to develop new stealth aircraft to combat opposing defenses. Starting out, the project was hidden from the public.
Researchers incorporated existing technology — the jet engines of the T-38A Talon, the fly-by-wire systems of the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the landing gear of the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the environmental systems of the C-130 Hercules, paired with advancing technology such as a radar cross section smaller than a marble, in record time.
In less than four years the project went from concept to prototype. The Nighhawk’s first flight was in December 1977.
After an initial order, Lockheed began production in November 1978 and 31 months later, the first YF-117A was ready. The aircraft’s new home, Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, achieved operational capacity in 1983.
The F-117’s stealth capabilities, paired with its ability to hold up to 5,000 pounds of internal payload and a top speed of more than 1,100 km/h, made it a powerful and reliable aircraft. The aircraft’s in-air refueling capability allowed it to circumvent the globe, striking targets anywhere it may have been needed.
The Nighthawk could be equipped with a variety of weapons with advanced navigation and attack systems in a digital avionics suite that increased mission effectiveness, helping reduce the workload on pilots.
It wasn’t long after entering service that the F-117 was called to action. The F-117 was used in combat for the first time in December 1989 during Operation Just Cause, when F-117s assigned to the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing attacked military targets in Panama.
However, it was during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 that the Nighthawk put the world on notice, flying more than 1,300 sorties. As the only U.S. or allied-nation aircraft flying the skies over Baghdad during Desert Storm, the Nighthawk struck more than 1,600 high-value targets.
The F-117’s stealth capability was proven on the opening night of the air campaign as Iraq’s state-of-the-art, Soviet-made, integrated air defense system was only aware of the aircraft’s presence over Baghdad after the first bombs hit their targets.
The Nighthawk deployed again in support of NATO’s Operation Allied Force in 1999, leading the first cooperative airstrike against Yugoslavia. It returned to Baghdad for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 where the Nighthawk was pivotal in striking key targets, helping drive the global war on terrorism.
While the F-117 was formidable in warfare, time and technological advances eventually caught up with the aging aircraft.
Adversary advancements against stealth capabilities and the introduction of new aircraft to fill its role — such as the F-22 Raptor and its ability to drop guided bombs — brought an end to the Nighthawk’s legendary run of combat service. It was retired in 2008, after nearly 30 years of service.
Did You Know?
- Despite being more accurately classified as an attack aircraft, the F-117 was given the fighter designation, a decision attributed to Gen. Robert J. Dixon, then-commander of Tactical Air Command, to make it a more attractive assignment to pilots.
- During Operation Desert Storm, the F-117 flew only 2% of all combat sorties, but covered 40% of the strategic targets with no losses or battle damage.
- 21st Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David Goldfein became the 708th and final individual to call himself a “Bandit,” a nickname given to all Nighthawk pilots, or their predecessor, the XST ‘Have Blue’ prototypes, when he first flew an F-117A in September 2006.
- The aircraft holds the record for the longest single-seat fighter aircraft that stands to this day — an 18.5 hour journey from Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, to Kuwait.
Fact Sheet: F-117 Nighthawk
Primary Function: Fighter/attack
Contractor: Lockheed Aeronautical Systems Co.
Power Plant: Two General Electric F404 non-afterburning engines
Length: 63 feet, 9 inches (19.4 meters)
Height: 12 feet, 9.5 inches (3.9 meters)
Weight: 52,500 pounds (23,625 kilograms)
Wingspan: 43 feet, 4 inches (13.2 meters)
Speed: High subsonic
Range: Unlimited with air refueling
Armament: Up to 5,000 lbs. of assorted internal stores
Unit Cost: $45 million
Date Deployed: 1982
Inventory: Active force, 55; ANG, 0; Reserve, 0
Sources: AF.mil, Lockheed Martin